Tag Archives: Conflict

Science Can’t Give Us 20/20 Next Election… Not Without Fiction

Photo by Frank McKenna on Unsplash

Vonnegut gave us poor Billy Pilgrim for a reason

We know a lot of stuff. And there’s so much more stuff, continuously generated, some of it brilliant, some of it noise. We’re living in a zettabyte era (a zettabyte equals 1 sextillion bytes or 1000 exabytes; an exabyte is 1 billion billion bytes).

We also live in a culture that values knowing ourselves (nod to Socrates), and a need to know others, which gets sticky and even painful when those we thought we knew say and do things outside our expectations. How dare they?

The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge, it’s deeper than that. Too often we conflate knowledge with insight. Too often we mistake knowing more about someone — their age, their tastes and interests, their politics and religion — with insight about the complex person they are.

Insight literally means looking inward, hard enough when it comes to examining ourselves. And impossible to transcend our own container of a body to look inside of another person.

The Internet in all its zettabytes glory cannot help us here.

We cannot — and may never — know what it’s like to experience life as someone else does. With virtual reality and AI in general, more insight may be possible, but it’s hard to imagine swapping brains, chemicals, DNA and neurology. To truly understand what it’s like to be in another’s body, with their wiring and experiences, thinking their thoughts, making their decisions.

If this sounds ridiculously obvious, it is. And it isn’t.


Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

I am bracing myself

Eighteen months until November 3, 2020. I’ve considered barricading myself from the impending shit show that seems likely, given what now passes for news and acceptable decorum among elected leaders.

(As a response, you’ve either nodded in agreement, perhaps smirked, or you’ve decided my bias is shining through.) My point is not to provoke, but to question what we assume we know about each other and every other in our lives.

Although I know better, I frequently presume that everyone who’s rational and has their basic needs met sees the same world and makes decisions as I do. I come at life every day with an expectation that other humans are seeing and hearing and tasting and feeling the same or very similarly. That we are experiencing life in like fashion. So why wouldn’t others, especially those I know, make the same choices or have the same beliefs and attitudes as me?


Loving Science and Accepting its Limitations

Original art by Devin Bill

Science is one way of knowing how similar and different we humans can be. It aims for an objective truth by getting enough agreement (usually with data) among us to generalize to a wider population.

Think sample size in polling. Getting enough responses or observations (n=?) to generalize leads to more confidence, less inference, in the findings.

My point is not to insult your knowledge of stats or to raise your political blood pressure. It’s a simple reminder that knowledge and insight are different. And if we remember the virtual improbability of gaining insight into another person’s thoughts and actions, we might reframe our expectations, particularly the ones that lead to conflict. And that doesn’t require statistics.

Example: a poll taken six months ago found that 77 percent of all Americans are dissatisfied with their elected leadership. It’s easy to imagine that 887 of 1,152 respondents (total sample size) are totally aligned on being dissatisfied: they like or don’t like, agree or disagree with Congress and/or the President. But this statistic is a deceptively narrow aperture. Why each person responded as they did and how each (n of 1) views and makes sense of their world (i.e., unique insights) are missing.

n = 1 is my reminder that understanding and predicting human behavior (a goal of science) rarely gives us satisfying answers about why individuals don’t or can’t or won’t see things our way. Science can’t do anything about the fact that we’re each strapped to a steel lattice, bolted to a flatcar on rails, restricted to a one- or two-millimeter opening within a vast panoramic view.

Like poor Billy Pilgrim.


We Are Billy Pilgrim

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five has given me some insight. Among them, rich imagery of how much we — individually and as a species — can’t understand about one another. (Note can’t, not don’t or won’t.)

…among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.

The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped — went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘That’s life.’

Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

Vonnegut reminds us of something very precious, scary, and supremely important: We are each one in 7.5-plus billion. I can only be who I am according to what I am able to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, understand, intuit, feel, and believe. This is true for everyone. We are each, and all, Billy Pilgrim.

What About Others (Who Seem) Like Us?

It can be particularly frustrating when our first and sometimes our strongest identity — family — disagrees with how we see the world. Even more so when they disapprove or disown us.

And while two people can share several identities and common experiences (work, race, gender, religion, politics), none of these shared identities mean that those two people share the same position on the flatcar or that they’re looking down the same tiny pipe opening.

My n = 1 realization hit me in the solar plexus of my political identity. Just last week.


Better Angels

I drove from Athens, Georgia to Anderson, South Carolina for my first Better Angels (BA) workshop. BA is a citizens’ organization that unites red (Republican-leaning) and blue (Democrat-leaning) Americans with an aim to depolarize America. It doesn’t try to change anyone. Just to facilitate dialogue instead of dissension.

BA gives an equal number of reds and blues (five of each) the space, time, and some reasonable structure to try to understand the other side’s point of view; and to engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together.

Photo by Devin Edwards on Unsplash

I’d asked one of my dear friends, a BA organizer, if I could observe, but because there was a shortage of “blues,” I was asked to participate when I arrived.

A fascinating thing happened:

I found myself frequently nodding yes — agreeing with! — two reds and one blue who was a self-proclaimed libertarian (albeit left-leaning on several topics).

It wasn’t that I agreed with all the reds. But I didn’t agree with all the blues, either. One red introduced himself as a fervent believer that Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of all time. I was similarly uncomfortable when another red said his biggest concern is that America has shifted to the extreme left; that what was radical 10 years ago is now normal and accepted.

My thoughts: Where is it that you live? What America do you see?

At times, I was uncomfortable with my own “team”. One blue (during a break-out session) said that Bernie had crossed the line. Felons? Able to vote? He threw up his hands and everyone else agreed.

I stayed quiet, memories of canvassing in Raleigh, fall of 2008… several men who answered the door looked down at the porch and said, “Felony, can’t vote.” I now work with a former felon. It pains me to use that label because he’s not that. He paid his debt and transformed into a peace-maker, even in prison, helping people learn how to restore themselves and others to their better selves.

The biggest takeaway for all 10 of us was this: The issues that reds and blues chose to stereotype about their own parties (we were asked to articulate what the other color thinks of us, first, and then articulate our reality) — were virtually identical. For example:

Abortion: Blues said they may be seen as “baby killers” but they wanted women to have some agency over their own bodies; reds said they were all considered pro-life, but this did not apply to a large faction of the party.

Guns: Reds said they imagined blues thought they were “gun nuts” but most were, in fact, in favor of reasonable regulation. Blues thought they were seen as pushing to eradicate the second amendment, but they wanted kids to be safe at school and everyone to be safer in public spaces.

Environment: Blues stated the “tree huggers, anti-business” stereotype but they wanted a sustainable world for future generations with corporations paying fair taxes; reds said they were seen as “non-green” but that most were not climate change deniers.

Immigration: Blues thought reds saw them as no-walls, no restrictions and reds thought blues saw them all as anti-immigration, eager to build walls ‘at any cost’. Both groups saw themselves as more centrist.

Toward the end, someone mentioned how we were more productive in those three hours than Congress had been in years. We all chuckled, but there was a sadness behind it. If there was any truth in the quip, it is that our two-party dysfunction seems unending. Will it ever get better?

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

Maybe. I visualize Billy Pilgrim wearing an n=1 tee. I imagine him somehow finding the insight he needs to unstrap himself from the railcar and remove the narrow pipe from his one eye. Being human, he’ll still be burdened with another (hopefully wider) pipe to look through. Not perfect, but a few more pixels of color, maybe new movement or shape to consider.

Especially now, it’s important to be better angels. Not out of obligation to others but to responsibly stop ourselves from falling headlong for data, sound bites, polls and posts, influencers and bots, ratings and tweets to describe the whole picture. None of these will give us the insights we need. Having conversations with curiosity will. It takes a bit of dedicated time, like reading a novel, to stop conflating knowledge and insight. To consider that all we know isn’t our entire landscape of possibilities.

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How Reporting 101 Could Teach The World To Sing in Closer Harmony

Photo by Amy Ross on flickr

I majored in journalism because it was the Seventies. My mother had a radio show at WSOY in Decatur, IL. I thought AM radio was corny, but I was secretly proud of her. To fill an hour of empty air with nothing but a microphone seemed insanely brave.

Print journalism was safer. As a newspaper reporter, I’d have more control over what I “said” and an editor’s net could catch me if I was wrong. Plus, I liked to write.

Bernstein and Woodward had already become celebrities by exposing the rot under the Nixon administration’s veneer of innocence. A new magazine called Ms.was stirring things up by serving news to a feminist audience. As I packed my bags for Normal, IL, I imagined that a first-generation college co-ed could be successful at something outside teaching or nursing. Gratefully, and with many supporters, I graduated.

Although I didn’t stick with the newsroom but for a few short years, my journalism education benefitted me far beyond the job of reporter and editor. After many years and several different careers, I’ve learned that our ability and willingness to interact with one another as human beings is the most important life skill. We must learn to communicate with less suspicion, prejudice, rudeness, and rancor.

Civility now sounds rather antiquated. But society’s need for it is not. Our ability to interact with others as co-inhabitants of our world is at stake. In fact, about 70% of Americans think a lack of civility in public spaces is a major problem.

Instead of blaming our growing incivility on politics or lack of role modeling (both of which certainly play a part), I believe that our use of technology — especially in social media spaces — is the main driver.

Social media platforms invite and reward us to make assumptions about people we don’t know. And if we knew them, we might like or even love them.

No one in my journalism cohort could have imagined the extent to which media would expand beyond TV, newspapers and magazines. Advertisements were of course necessary to keep the publications I wrote for and ones I dreamed of writing for afloat. But the blurring of entertainment, advertising, news, features, and public relations? What are you smoking? Alternative facts? A mad dystopian nightmare.

Yet, marketing “pop” as a pop song that exploited our ethos had begun before the Watergate break in. The most famous and (up to then) innovative commercial — one that pushed us into the brave new world of soda equals social consciousness and world peace — actually happened in 1971.

The Washington Post, Second-Wave Feminism and my mother’s role modeling influenced my actions. But the Coke commercial is the ear worm that wriggled its way into my emotional brain. Whenever I think about making the world a better, saner, kinder, more enlightened place, it’s the song I hear.

I’d like to Teach the World a Reporting 101 Mindset

Reporting instructor Steve Pasternack was not one for feel-good jingles or pithy aphorisms. He was a serious, seasoned reporter both respected and moderately feared (after some of us cancelled his wake up call for an early conference event as a prank). He was from New Jersey, Jewish, direct and passionate about what constituted accurate and accessible reporting. I remember fragments of memories while sitting in his class, mostly behind a Royal or Remington at Illinois State University in 1978.

Photo by Ed Uthman on flickr

Fragment 1: Your writing is an artifact. It will be scrutinized and your assignments will bleed with corrections and critiques. Toughen up. It’s not personal.

Fragment 2: Inverted pyramid: State most important facts up front. Details come later. Don’t embellish to sound smart.

Fragment 3: Don’t assume anything. Ask. (Image of a cloudy blackboard, six letters divided by two vertical chalk lines)

ass | u | me

This word summed up the source of a journalist’s most common error. Taking steps to mitigate assumptions cleared the path to a more accurate, objective truth. Simple steps like asking sources to spell their names, double-checking “facts,” listening without interruption, probing without pushing, restating what they said, asking permission to contact them if you have more questions. And, of course, offering no opinion. A reporter does not judge.

My Coke-flavored-teach-the-world-to-sing wish is that everyone learn Reporting 101 life skills from someone like Dr. Pasternack. To sit at a metal desk with a manual typewriter at your fingertips, eyes squinting to decipher handwritten facts from opinions on a blackboard. To type a coherent and accurate story in 40 minutes. To shake off that red-stained artifact that you were sure deserved an 83 but is returned to you with a 57. A number that compels you to double-check your own name in the top-left corner.

Illusions of Knowledge, Comfort, and Being on the Right Side

USAF 1st Airman Devin Boyer

Today, supercomputers do our investigative work. We consume more than we research, think about, or discuss current events and their implications. Social media algorithms point us to folks like us who like what we like, have similar interests, and further fuel our dislike of “other” — those whose ideologies and lifestyles are dangerous, weird, even wrong.

Those models, created to make money, eerily predict our spending, what we will read, share, like and love more accurately than could our closest loved one. But an equally troubling phenomenon is our increasing tendency to stick to the stories that get shared and praised within our tribes. We report and repost narratives that reinforce the tribe’s ideology, thereby proving our allegiance and upping our likes and status.

Being drawn to folks who validate our ideas, experiences and opinions is understandably comforting and comfortable. Yet, if we only listen to those who agree with us, if we keep sharing the same memes, cover the same narratives over and over again with no passersby from other perspectives, what do we gain?

Not Assuming Anything

I’ve been doing work in the area of conflict for a few years. Whether it’s helping others have difficult conversations at work or facilitating opposing perspectives on community issues, not everyone wants to learn a more complex, nuanced story from different perspectives.

Those who resist more complete stories are not stupid or wrong. Like it or not, though, we are all constantly learning and adapting. Whether we want to or not.

One thing seems clear, yet frustrating: Often it’s the people who are least willing to have conversations outside their tribe who could benefit most. At a minimum, we need to be curious in order to talk about uncomfortable topics or to engage with someone who belongs to an “opposing” tribe. Some people are so certain they’re right, there’s no more room for curiosity.

If you remain curious and want to better understand political perspectives, Better Angels is devoted to reds and blues discussing beliefs without agenda. Better Angels began in December 2016, when 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters gathered in South Lebanon, Ohio, to listen to one another, respectfully disagree and find common ground. Becoming a member is a good way to engage with others who are looking to learn, listen, develop curiosity and grow.

Here are five of my own tips, derived from Pasternack’s class and other skills acquired in later careers. The first three address communicating with others. The last two are reminders to be mindful of what we consume.

  1. Ask someone who differs in some way from your identities (age, gender expression, ethnicity, race, nationality, ability) to coffee or tea. Ask them about their experiences. Listen. Share something about yourself. That’s it.

A conversation is not a debate. You can’t listen and judge at the same time.

2. Remember that we all have different identities but we aren’t solely defined by them. Because I was born female, white and within the baby boomer generation doesn’t mean I dress, vote, or eat like other 55+ white women. I like this paradox:

Group identity matters but it never defines any individual.

3. When you talk with someone who is different from you, what do you expect?

We tend to find what we set out to judge.

4. Reduce your social media use. Avoid or block content created to produce fear and polarize us based on group identities.

You are not what you consume, but you can become consumed by it.

5. Read books, newspapers and magazines that give longer treatment to issues and people who are trying to make the world a more positive place. Listen to podcasts featuring people who have done work to add knowledge, not simply their opinions, to issues you care about.

Although politics is important, reacting to sound bites and memes does little but rile us.

We put stories together in our heads to make sense of a very complex world. Our right and left brains work in tandem to create the story — where the pieces seem to fit best based on our experiences, beliefs, biases, hopes and fears.

We assume the pieces fit because we only have our own lens of experience through which to see. As Anais Nin said,

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.


In Memoriam

Dr. Steve Pasternack died in 2004. He was full professor at New Mexico State University from 1983 until his death in 2004, and he served as journalism department head there for eight years. Dr. Pasternack also taught and conducted workshops for many U.S. government agencies, including the Fulbright program, Voice of America and the U.S. State Department in 17 countries, including Latvia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Albania, Mali and Ethiopia.

His goal was to increase the level of professionalism in journalism in countries emerging from authoritarian rule or which had suffered from violence in the past, according to friend and colleague Dr. Nathan Brooks. In 2000 in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda that claimed nearly a million lives, Pasternack helped establish a journalism program at the National University of Rwanda during his first extended stay.

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